Keri Ataumbi

By Dottie Indyke

Keri Ataumbi’s artwork is deep, yet all about surface. Her mixed-media paintings and constructions focus on beauty and irony

Keri Ataumbi’s artwork is deep, yet all about surface. Her mixed-media paintings and constructions focus on beauty and irony. And though she’s intuitive, she’s also intensely analytical, a woman privately exploring her inner self while airing her journey in the public eye.

These dichotomies play out in lush, environmentally oriented abstract paintings that are thickly layered with resin and pigment, wax and varnish; in jewelry of fine pearls and gold and diamonds mixed with miniature cast dog bones and Halloween candy; and in cutting-edge sculpture such as a Lucite table with iron legs cast from Ataumbi’s own muscular arms, or a panorama of foot-high Pillsbury Doughboys cast in white and dark chocolate that is fraught with multiple meanings. Of Kiowa descent on her mother’s side (her father is Italian American), Ataumbi defines herself not as a Native artist but as a player in the international contemporary art arena.

The Lucite table, for instance, which is both sculptural and functional, metaphorically challenges the assumption that an Indian artist must neatly fit into a single category. The Doughboys draw parallels between homogenous icons of popular culture and the objectification of Native artists. Both installations address questions that rage inside her. Such as: Must she make recognizably “Native” work in order to be successful? “Pretty pictures are not what my creator put me on earth to do,” Ataumbi proposes, yet her paintings suggest otherwise.

Having traveled abroad to Indonesia to paint for three months, Ataumbi recently did a series that was inspired by a dilapidated concrete wall in Bali. Every day, Ataumbi would take pictures of it, draw it, and paint it, inspiring the wrath of a passing rice farmer who could not fathom why she chose it over a nearby scene of verdant rice terraces ascending the slopes of a dormant volcano. “I tried to explain that you could find beauty in the smallest things,” she recalls. “At the end of my time there, he said he was starting to see beautiful things in the gutter and the trash.”

Old objects constructed in new ways and diverse textures and surfaces all fascinate her, no doubt because of her parents’ influence. Her mother, Geri Ah-be-hill, ran a trading post on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, where Ataumbi grew up immersed in meticulously crafted Native-made objects. The romanticized sculptures of Indians by her father, Richard Greeves, provided their share of inspiration to Ataumbi and her sister, bead artist Teri Greeves. “We both owe our careers to him,” Ataumbi says.

“The type of art we do is complete and utter rebellion.” Her father’s influence cut another way, prodding her toward the more challenging technical aspects of art-making. She remembers him welding piles of horseshoes together to make a garden gate, and when he poured his bronze statues, she wanted to be right by his side. To this day, the foundry is one of her favorite places. “When you cast iron, you’re lifting a 150-pound crucible of molten iron,” she notes. “You’re wearing fire suits. If the stuff spills on you, you don’t get burned, you lose a leg.”

She can just as easily get tough and dirty as work her refined paintings and jewelry. For the Heard Museum, she created a martini purse depicting the Kiowa legend of the Big Dipper in sterling silver and 14-karat gold with diamond stars. Inside, lined with smoked buckskin, the purse has compartments for modern components such as credit cards and lipstick. Like her table, the piece took months to complete. “I tend to be tenacious and take on things that are beyond my reach. Both projects really kicked my ass,” she says.

A yen for excitement is an integral part of her makeup. When she and her sister fantasized where they wanted to live in the world, Ataumbi’s list included a chateau in Paris and a bungalow in Tahiti. In real life, at age 13, she left home in Wyoming for prep school in Boston, MA, then undergraduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design. But after a year she dropped out. “In the painting department, if you didn’t follow in the footsteps of the male hotties, you weren’t a sellable package,” she says by way of explanation. In search of her authentic voice, she transferred instead to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Since then, she has flip-flopped between making objects of beauty and those with biting social commentary. “My gripe about contemporary Native American art is there’s so much nostalgia wrapped up in it,” she says. “The trick is to keep it vibrant. I’m interested in the human psyche beyond our personal cultural identifications.”

Ataumbi’s work can be seen at LewAllen Contemporary, Santa Fe, NM, and Blue Rain Gallery, Taos, NM.

Featured in July 2004